Finding Joy in the Struggle: Kathleen Rooney’s “Where Are the Snows”
July 26, 2022 § 5 Comments
Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore sat down to discuss the line between essay and prose poem with Kathleen Rooney, author of Where Are the Snows, chosen for the 2021 X.J. Kennedy Prize by Kazim Ali, who calls the work “a smart, fierce, and intelligent take on contemporary life that everyone should read.”
Rooney’s book is also heartbreaking and wickedly funny
And hard to classify.
DINTY: It strikes me that so many of these poems could easily be presented as flash essays, albeit quirky and unusual flash essays. Do you have a pivot point where you see prose poem turning into essay, or vice versa. Is it simply a matter of honesty vs. imagination, or something more to do with form?
KATHLEEN: One of the differences between a poem and an essay, for me, is how much of the connecting is going to be done by the reader in comparison to how much is going to be done for them by the writer. In an essay, even a fragmentary one which eschews transitions, there’s usually a grouping or an order that suggests stronger connections or relationships from one chunk of content to the next. In a poem, you can be more elliptical and suggestive. I see the stanzas of these prose poems as operating more associatively than argumentatively or narratively, and in an essay—though of course there are exceptions—that’s not as much the case.
DINTY: That is a fresh, and fascinating, delineation of where the prose poem ends and essay begins, one I haven’t seen articulated so clearly before now. Of course, we published one of the poems from Where Are the Snows in Brevity recently, “The Sweet and Fleshy Product of a Tree or Other Plant” (as an essay of course) and I’m struck by how what seems at first a simple meditation on fruit builds into something more political, spiritual, and complex. That happens again and again in the book; ideas come out of nowhere and the experience of reading takes a fascinating turn, one that seems entirely necessary by the time we reach the bottom of the page. Can you talk about how this works, and your deeper intentions with this book?
KATHLEEN: Thank you! As you know, I am fascinated with these sorts of questions and distinctions and like to explore them in my own work and in the work that Abby Beckel and I publish with Rose Metal Press. It’s cool to me that “The Sweet…” is hybrid enough to hop back and forth over whatever fence can be said to exist between prose poem and essay. There’s a feeling I associate with childhood of looking super-hard at a seemingly simple object – the square in a window-screen, a pine needle, a fleck of glitter – and then tumbling into a kind of Grand Canyon of contemplation, just free-falling past layer after layer, stratum after stratum of realization and association and even politicization and argumentation. It’s a sensation of curiosity with no bottom, a potentially infinite feeling of being mesmerized by the tiniest thing, which then goes from being tiny to infinitely huge. With each piece in the book, I tried to have a given topic in mind – fruit, like you say, or cemeteries or birthdays or the priesthood or real estate – and then let myself free fall through my thoughts and emotions on that topic for as long as possible until I felt like the writing was done and I’d reached some new understanding of whatever I’d been looking at.
DINTY: And then there is humor. Where Are the Snows is a very sly book, and despite some deadly-serious commentary on the dire state of our world today, the individual poems, essays, or whatchamacallits are packed with tongue-in-cheek surprises, even, at times, unexpected joy. “Can beginner’s luck apply from moment to moment?” you ask. “Not sure, but I hope so.”
Well, we all should be so lucky. So tell me, is the mix of humor and hard reality an intentional move, or does it just come to you naturally?
KATHLEEN: I am so happy you found it funny because I meant for it to be hilarious and for the humor to be entertaining, but also maybe to serve a political end. In his essay “Funny, but Not Vulgar,” George Orwell says, “A thing is funny when — in some way that is not actually offensive or frightening — it upsets the established order. Every joke is a tiny revolution.” Right now in America, the right-wing is adept at being funny in a manner that is vulgar, offensive, and frightening; their proudly coarse and deliberately ignorant and false forms of humor are proving effective for their oppressive, exclusionary, and destructive aims. I want the left to have more fun and get funnier too. Seeking solidarity through humor and fellow feeling could help combat a lot of the self-seriousness, dreariness, and grievance that make the left prone to eat its own, and could help us channel our energy into avenues that, as Orwell mentions, could be revolutionary. Finding joy in the struggle, as the saying goes, is one of the things I hope this book evokes.
Dinty W. Moore is founding editor of Brevity magazine and author of Crafting The Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Non-Fiction, among other books.
Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a nonprofit publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, as well as a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a collective of poets and their typewriters who compose poetry on demand. Her most recent books include the novels Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk and Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey, and her criticism appears in The New York Times, The Chicago Review of Books, The Brooklyn Rail, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She lives in Chicago with her spouse, the writer Martin Seay, and teaches at DePaul. Her novel From Dust to Stardust is forthcoming from Lake Union Press in Fall 2023.